Thursday, August 26, 2010



Driving in high desert, Joshua trees
like twisted candelabras,
I thought: my America.

This space. This dazzling

Everyone has to discover 
their own America,
and this one was mine:

not Victorian statuary
in mosquito-pond estates,

not white clapboard villages
mildewed in the nineteen-twenties,

but this
continental sweep.

A magnitude winged
with volcanoes.

Not corn fields, 

but lava fields.

Not the turnpike,
but the highway unspooling horizons.

Not monotonous muggy green,
but shameless magenta,
ochre, the red earth.

Even death is different here,
bleached bones joined to solar flare.

Operas of Pacific sunsets,
cities named in Spanish after saints –

At the rim of the world,
the cool ocean wind
combing palm-fronds 

like a river of hands;
danger signs, you leaning over
into endless light and legend –

sky on fire, a flamenco virgin 
taunting, You’ve come
this far, keep going.

   ~ Oriana


A chauvinist West Coast poem, yes, but for me to be able to say, This is my America, this is what I love – it’s huge. It has not been an easy adjustment. Observing other immigrants, I came to realize that it’s not a matter of achieving complete acceptance or getting stuck in complete rejection (actually I’ve never encountered complete acceptance, but I have amply witnessed the misery of complete rejection). For me the solution was “discovering my own America” – the people and places I liked, the aspects of culture I enjoyed, such as the informality of speech. My America is also what Adam Zagajewski calls "the other America" -- the islands of intellect and creativity in the ocean of the "TV culture." 

I know that the poem above protests too much about my rejection of that part of the continent which is not the West, but then exaggeration for the sake of emphasis is “standard practice” in literature. It is no exaggeration, however, to say that I fell in love with California at first sight. True, I was coming from Milwaukee, and the contrast was magnificent. Basically, California was another country, which made me realize that there are several countries within this continental country, and it was my incredible luck, thanks to my mother, to end up in this space and climate (including, to a large degree, the mental climate – the openness to eccentricity and subcultures, the cities’ rich spiritual and cultural smorgasbord).

Of course nothing is perfect, and this paradise also had its price and its problems. I never used to think of public transportation as a luxury until I was hit with having to have a car and drive and drive and drive. And get lost – this was almost a sure thing whenever I had to go somewhere unfamiliar, especially trying to find my way back after dark. It’s also uncanny how often I drive in my dreams, usually under adverse conditions.

And so I came to realize that America is neither hell, purgatory, or paradise. Those are obsolete medieval constructs. America is about driving.  The country originated in movement, migration. The speed has changed, but the movement continues.

photo: Angie Vorhies


It’s soul-time, god-time, the lilacs of sunset
already drowned as I make a wrong turn.
Poets have no sense of direction
even if they cross themselves

before driving off into the so-called
“real world” – the moon looking wasted,
the four dogs in the back of a rusty
pick-up truck in ecstasy, gulping the wind –

while I don’t know where I am,
who I am, why everywhere I go
I see an artificial waterfall
at the entrance to a shopping mall.

And thus we are both lost,
I and America, under the ruined moon,
abandoned as soon as it was “conquered.”
We read again the torn

out-of-date map; we begin to pray,
more religious the darker it gets,
under the illegible signposts of the stars –
though the afterlife, once you’re out of

the tunnel of unbirth, will probably be
another crowded parking lot.
I stop and I ask for directions, but mostly
I’m in the desert like Moses, forty years

trying to find the Promised Land.
By now I believe that country exists
only in the mind, the kingdom within.
It’s not darkness that blinds us,

it’s headlights. Don’t talk to me
about the moral compass –
I need to be told how to get
to I-15, the highway that leads

one way to Las Vegas, the garishly lit
wilderness of sin, where I was told, 

“It’s not the winners
who pay the electric bill.”

The other way leads home,
the blue end of the world:
white roar of the Pacific,
below the eroding cliffs.

~ Oriana


During my worst years, the beauty of California was one of my life lines. I never forgot that the Pacific was the largest ocean in the world. It was a first-rate ocean, so at least I had one huge first-rate sight in my second-hand life.

Now, having just had a near-drowning experience, I feel somewhat less trusting toward that magnificent but dangerous beast. Never mind the eroding cliffs; if you get caught in the white roar of a large wave, it’s hopeless to resist. But it is still a privilege to be near the Pacific. It’s exhilarating to be in the presence of so much energy.
I confess that I also find Las Vegas exhilarating (though I wouldn't want to live there). Again, it’s the energy. “Energy is the eternal delight.” Thanks to my close encounter, I understood this even more deeply. My friend and I, sore from the pounding of a freak wave but unhurt, not counting my minor scrapes and the scolding from the lifeguard, were strangely calm afterwards. You’d think we might be emotionally expressive when talking about it, but we moved and spoke slowly, quietly. There was simply no energy to maintain our typical animated state. So that was another lesson in how you can’t separate what we imagine is our stable and distinctive personality from its cellular substrate. 


About coming to America: I experienced similar emotions coming to the West Coast from the East Coast. I never felt at  home here until I discovered the poetry community.

I like Angie's photo.

You're right when you say "America is about driving" and "most poets have no sense of direction." I thought it was just me. I stay "misplaced" most of the time.

At least here in SD we have mountains, deserts, the ocean – all the best within driving distance. But I miss being able to step out the door to see the stars. You have to drive away from the city lights or the heavens are just not visible. 


It’s interesting that I instantly felt less “foreign” in California than in Milwaukee, even though the landscape, vegetation, and climate were all different here, new, amazing. The Hispanic element, e.g. names like Santa Monica, also made the place all the more attractive. I remember seeing my first bluejay in the botanical garden at UCLA. I stared at it with delight. My mother was beside me. Sharing my joy, she said, “They have birds like this here.”

Yes, we are terrifically spoiled by California. True, the urban sprawl creates light pollution and we see only the brightest stars. I heard that school children from New York, taken on a field trip to the countryside, screamed with terror at the sight of the night sky with its millions of stars. But that’s another post, another poem.


So much to say (blabber) about your page on America. I was born in California. And yes, love. Dream about it almost every night.

OK, will take the bait:  America is about driving . . . ambition.

And driving was particularly apt re your observation that "you can’t separate what we imagine is our stable and distinctive personality from its cellular substrate. " Both are vehicle.

A friend sent me this this morning: 

Touring on a motorcyle immerses you into the environment you are going thru – you smell and taste the air around you – you feel the subtle differences in temp and humidity – you are  not isolated from the environment you are going thru.

So perhaps we all need to ride motorcycles in our approach.  A little less "us" (personality, body), that gets in the way.

The part about the motorcycle and immersion in the environment reminds me of a friend's tale of how her father gave her a drive-through tour of the whole country, the main tourist spots, and his repeated boast was, "And you never once  had to get out of the car." 

Driving can be a metaphor for ambition, but sometimes driving is only driving, for the sake of driving. At first I was quite surprised by driving for the sake of driving -- "Let's go for a ride."  Not a ride to somewhere, but just a ride. Motion. This truly is the country of car culture, astonishingly shaped by the car: hence sprawling suburbs, jammed freeways, super-markets, giant stores like Walmart and Costco, giant parking lots, giant trucks, and more. 

And America is the country of getting lost. Labyrinthine tales of how someone got lost and how it took an incredible amount of time to arrive at the intended destination. Heroic tales of finding parking. My sense of victory if I manage to arrive somewhere new having had to make only one U-turn. Getting home after midnight because of a missed exit. The garage door failing to open. And on and on, the automotive life, even in my dreams. Oh please, not a motorcycle (dangerous), but the kind of city where you can walk . . .  and with lots of trees to keep the air cool and clean. With fountains  . . . and not just at the entrance to shopping malls.

Old cemetery, Amherst MA


  1. America invites wandering. My parents were farm people from Poland. They had lived in the same place their parents and grandparents and great grandparents lived in. The only thing that was strong enough to move my parents from their ancestral homes was the might of the Nazi war machine. The Nazis picked them up and moved them. My parents spent years in concentration camps and refugee camps in Germany.

    But really they never knew what travel was until they got to America.

    They spent the rest of their lives moving from one place to another. Ellis Island to Buffalo, New York, to a couple dozen different apartments and houses in Chicago to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to Chicago to Mesa, Arizona, to Sun City, Arizona, to four different houses there, and finally back to Chicago where they were buried in a mausoleum in a Polish cemetery in Niles, Illinois, among their countrymen and women, exiles, refugees, lost Poles.

    My parents discovered that America was movement, a place where you could move and move and move and move. Until the end.

  2. Before I came, I envisioned America as a place of lots of travel, plus a starting point for travel all over the world (I wanted the see the Himalayas, for one thing; also the Amazon jungle).

    I had no idea that I'd spend a lot of time driving -- and how much I actually loved to stay home!

  3. Oriana, I read your poem again, and it rings truer and truer. I especially liked the last half, beginning with "Even Death is different here." You and I are the lucky ones. Not born here but born here to our own sense of this wild place.

  4. Yes, the astonishing beauty of California -- of the whole West Coast -- was one of the miracles that made me survive the worst years.

    In Milwaukee, my thought was, "I exchanged Warsaw for this???" And I really was ready to return, but the dream of California did come true.

  5. My first ancestor came to America in 1630. Her name was Anne Bradstreet, first European poet to write in America and be published. Thirteen generations later, her spirit still lives in me, as fresh as yours as a new immigrant.

    I wrote a poem about religion today, so I enjoyed reading yours about religion. I enjoy the poem about discovering breasts as joy in life.

  6. I love the way you put it, Surazeus! Yes, I used to despise my body, and my breasts in particular, useless, in the way . . . but thanks to that "discovery experience," I now think they are adorable pets.